Donny McCaslin – Beyond Now (2016)

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David Bowie’s final album Blackstar featured impressive jazz music provided by the quartet of Donny McCaslin, Jason Linder, Mark Guiliana and Tim Lefebvre. Now, McCaslin’s quartet have recorded Beyond Now, to be released on Motema Music on Oct. 14. Donny was influenced deeply by his experience collaborating with Bowie, and the album is dedicated to his memory.  
 
“Shake Loose” begins the album, opening with a thumping funky rhythm over which Donny McCaslin’s saxophone flies. And flies is no exaggeration. The sax playing is impressive and deeply emotive. At one point, he trips up the scales in a continuum which is mind boggling. Crystal clear notation and effective tempo changes, supported by stalwart percussion, make this a beautiful piece to listen to. The middle section with the bass and echoey effects of the keys adds a surreal effect completely in tune with the atmosphere of the piece.

“A Small Plot of Land,” written by David Bowie and Brian Eno for Bowie’s Outside album, is reverently revisited — albeit without the intricate piano introduction of the original track. Instead, the prelude is provided by drums and bass lines, which work well. Vocals are provided by Jeff Taylor and all the evocative familiar intonations are here, along with some great guitar and percussion. Always a strong song, Donny McCaslin quartet give it reverence yet introduce elements and changes which make it their own vehicle. The bass is slightly more to the fore than in the original, and there is a sax intercession over ethereal keys along with a change of tempo and vocal register which expand the original arrangement yet still leave the backbone of the song in its entirety. This is an imaginative cover of a great tune.

The title track for Beyond Now opens with a bass line, over which the theme is introduced. This theme is worked, re-worked and improvised around right through the number and is a gentle, lilting song which leads into a story told in musical pictures. It rises and falls with passion and emotive playing. It builds and rises, introducing a Bowie-esque feeling in the middle section with tremulous, reedy keys under which the bass and percussion roll before the sax adds another layer and takes control, rising to a crescendo of emotive stylistic playing before dropping back down, rising once more and gently laying the piece out in sections. Perhaps the final section is a tad repetitive but overall, this is a stupendous track.

“Coelocanth 1,” a track from the progressive-house performer and producer Deadmau5, starts with atmospheric intonations reminiscent of an other-worldly landscape, waves of sound roll in and the sax joins in with ripples of sound which add a harshness over the sonorous backdrop. There is a heaviness to this track which makes it different from the rest of Beyond Now, neither good or bad, it depends on the mood. It leads into “Bright Abyss,” which has structure from the start; the arrangements are finessed and mature. Light and fluffy at first, Donny McCaslin’s sax adds texture and tones over the supportive bass, keys and percussion and what starts as an almost easy-listening number develops a life of its own as it grows, the instruments mingle and merge and the end result is almost nine minutes of changes, diversity and delight. McCaslin demonstrates his diversity as a player and “Bright Abyss” serves as a vehicle for his mastery of the sax as he crosses the registers, drops little foibles and quirky sounds in here and there. A pleasurable interlude of just keys and deliciously thumpy percussion creates a light middle section, before a change of key and tempo announces a shift of style. The track ends with the full band in harmony — lovely.

“Faceplant” is slightly crazy, with the theme controlled by the bass guitar underneath, over which the sax explores all kinds of quirky moves before the band come together for a rocky theme development, with sax taking the bass line theme to the end. “Warszawa” (from David Bowie’s album Low) is beautifully interpreted and extended. (It is nearly two minutes longer than Bowie’s original.) The theme here is developed by the sax, and supported by the rest of the band. Again, they make it somehow original, yet still with clear reference to the original, clearly dividing into sections and there is an orchestral feel to this number at times.

“Glory” is a track of different sections, atmospheres and textures with Donny McCaslin’s sax at times gentle, at others expansive. There is a middle section of quiet, gentle rippling keys — which is extraordinary and well placed — before the drums first, then bass and finally the sax add to the layers and build the number again. A striking part is where the piano is playing a stunning solo, and the sax enters in counter time and roughly overtakes the keyboard part before developing into a manic and perfectly counterbalanced tune over the solid background. This track is engaging and polished. “Remain,” a Mutemath track, closes out Donny McCaslin’s Beyond Now and is a pleasant enough number, an instrumental version of the original that works the gentle theme. This time, we find the sax interceding for the vocals on the original track, managing to get the emotive feeling across and ending the album with a polished delivery.

Beyond Now is the announcement of McCaslin’s emergence into mainstream, though he has long been a highly thought of saxophone player and leader. He has three Grammy nominations and 11 albums to his name already, including 2012’s Casting For Gravity and 2015’s Fast Future. Maria Schneider recommended McCaslin and his group to David Bowie when she was collaborating with him on the 2014 track “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime).” Bowie heard McCaslin play at the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village, and the rest is history with the band working with Bowie on Blackstar, earning them the title of Bowie’s Last Band.

McCaslin said Bowie showed him the risks and rewards of going for your uncompromising musical vision. To say McCaslin has taken this to heart would be an understatement. The generosity Bowie showed on Blackstar, as well as his appreciation of jazz, gave Donny McCaslin exposure and allowed the music to be what it is. For McCaslin, the door has opened and his heavily jazz-influenced playing style will be heard more and more. Donny McCaslin’s Beyond Now is an astonishing show of talent and indefinable music which crosses musical boundaries and merges them — yet retains the jazz influences, of which there are many — creating brave, definitive and quite frankly wonderful sounds.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Sammy Stein
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